Sep 17, 2013

Celebrating Religious Differences

By Saadia Faruqi

Some of us working in the field of interfaith dialogue have rosy ideas about loving each other and forgetting our differences. We bring people of different faiths together for talks, social service projects and much more; the understanding while doing all this is that our similarities are much more in quantity and quality than our differences, and that we should all get along despite everything. While noble, this ideology is also terribly flawed, according to a book I've recently started reading, by Stephen Prothero entitled "God is not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why their Differences Matter".

Stephen Prothero is no stranger to religious dialogue. His previous book Religious Literacy won several awards, including the New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice and Quill Book Award Winner, and Booklist's Top 10 Religion Book. In God is not One, Prothero explains why the viewpoint of "all paths lead to the same god" doesn't make too much sense to him. He starts out by saying that while no one claims that capitalism and socialism, democracy and monarchy, are the same, most scholars and practitioners of religion talk about the different religious belief systems as essentially similar. He gives the example of "life's mountain", an analogy used by numerous experts to signify that all religions are various paths that lead to the same summit, implying that we all reach the same God through a variety of methods. He quotes the following leaders in particular whose similar messages make the waters muddy so to speak:
Huston Smith, philosopher of religion: "It is possible to climb life's mountain from any side, but when the top is  reached the trails converge".
Gandhi: "Belief in one God is the cornerstone of all religions."
Dalai Lama: "The essential message of all religions is very much the same."
Isn't this what all interfaith activists, practitioners, teachers and preachers profess as well? But Prothero says that this type of reasoning is "dangerous, disrespectful and untrue." He calls this "lovely sentiment" a "fantasy world in which all gods are one." He agrees that this belief is a rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only "you and your kind will make it to heaven or Paradise" hence the motivation for this thought process is good, but nevertheless incorrect. He argues that while religious tolerance is certainly commendable, religious unity is not; in fact this "groupthink" has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clashes of religions that threaten us worldwide. Religious differences cannot be ignored because they have a deep and everlasting effect on how we live our lives and how safe this world is for us.
Prothero explains that interfaith activists are reimagining the world, "hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood." Yet he says that we must admit that there are many situations in the world today where ignorance of differences can be harmful, rather than beneficial. Religion shapes much of the world today, from economics to politics to gender equality and everything in between. Our lack of understanding of the differences in theologies and viewpoints, even the differences between denominations of the same religion, cannot help the world become a better place. Whether we are thinking about politics in the Middle East, the state of women in poor countries, the Israel-Palestine problem, or local issues in the United States including public prayer, school textbooks, marriage equality or anything else, an analysis of faith differences is required to make sense of what's going on around us.
So as we conduct interfaith dialogue, let's not forget to discuss differences as well as similarities. Diversity always makes us stronger! For more insights from Prothero's perspectives, read an interview here.
Saadia Faruqi is the interfaith liaison for the  women's group of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and editor of Interfaith Houston. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ahmadiyya Community or Interfaith Houston.

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